Three homes stand in what used to be a single-family lot on California Avenue | Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Three homes stand in what used to be a single-family lot on California Avenue | Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Ruling for local control will make it harder to split up single-family lots in order to build multiple housing units

By Gary Walker

Where there was once a single-family home and yard at 724 California Ave. there are now three sleek contemporary houses scrunched back-to-back from curb to alley, built in 2012 after a developer split up the lot to make the most of limited square footage.

“We’re already very dense in Venice. Three houses [on one lot] is just too many,” said Carolyn Rios, who lives a couple of doors down. A block away, a residential lot at 666 California Ave. is being split into two parcels to make way for a pair of three-story structures.

“It’s all around us,” Rios said of this doubling or even tripling of density occurring in her Oakwood neighborhood.

Venice community leaders and people like Rios have watched similar scenarios play out for years, many arguing that these small-lot subdivisions that bring more and more people and cars threaten to permanently alter the character of neighborhoods.

They’ve also complained that small-lot subdivisions violate the Venice Specific Plan, a 1999 document intended to govern local development but superseded time and again by less-stringent city zoning codes. Those challenges went nowhere, however, and in 2010 city planning officials declared that the city’s rules about subdividing lots outranked the Venice plan.

But that could all change tomorrow.

On Aug. 14, city Planning Director Michael LoGrande issued a written policy statement that reverses course by giving Venice planning guidelines supremacy over wider city planning regulations in cases where the two conflict, including small-lot subdivision guidelines. The decision becomes final unless an appeal is filed by Friday.

Sure, it all sounds a bit wonky — “Where provisions on the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan differ from provisions contained in Chapter One of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan shall supersede those other regulations,” LoGrande wrote — but it spells vindication and hope for relief to many in the slow-growth camp.

“It’s bad enough when people build these McMansions on these smaller lots, but it’s even worse when [developers] try to pack two to three structures on them,” said Venice resident Regan Kibbee.

Kibbee lives near 522 Venice Blvd., where developers hope to replace one large house with as many as five single-family homes and five attached duplexes, a 25,450-square-foot project on an 18,484-square-foot lot. The project was rejected by governing bodies but is currently under appeal.

Venice resident Stephen Vitalich, an architect who has worked on small-lot subdivision projects, said the promise of high profit margins by subdividing lots has been a major driver of the local housing market.

“If you can buy a property for $1 million, build a single family home there and then sell it for $1.5 or $2 million, why not buy the property, subdivide it into smaller lots and sell two homes there for $1.5 or $2 million each?” he explained.

LoGrande’s ruling “is probably going to have an effect on the real estate market in Venice. There have been a lot of aggressive buyers who have been very active in neighborhoods like Oakwood, but I think LoGrande’s decision is going to make it be a little more challenging for a developer,” Vitalich said.

While the Venice Specific Plan does allow for lot subdivisions in some neighborhoods, splitting a lot into three separate homes would require that at least one home is sold as affordable housing well below market rates, which Vitalich believes will discourage many would-be developers.

Los Angeles City Planning Dept. Deputy Director Alan Bell said the decision to give the Venice regulations more weight stemmed from the large volume of comments expressed by residents during a town hall meeting at Venice High School in late March.

“It was an eye-opening experience, certainly for me. The impetus to revisit our previous interpretation came from the residents and the community’s leaders,” Bell said.

“The whole intent of the interpretation was to protect what is unique and special about Venice,” he continued.

Challis Macpherson, a Venice resident who worked on the original Venice Specific Plan and challenged the city over small-lot subdivision rules in 2010, had become pessimistic about the situation, until now.

“I didn’t think anything would change. I walked away thinking, ‘Oh well, I tried,’” she recalled.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin said LoGrande’s ruling shows that active residents really can make a difference.

“I’m very pleased that the Planning Dept. issued a commonsense ruling that puts neighborhoods first,” Bonin said. “This underscores how important it is to stand up and express your viewpoints, and illustrates what can happen when we all work collaboratively.”